Tougher beryllium controls approved
December 9, 1999
The federal government acknowledged yesterday that thousands of workers have been exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust over the past 50 years at U.S. facilities used to make nuclear weapons.
In announcing a stronger plan to protect workers at weapon plants, the U.S. Department of Energy said it is establishing an "action level" for beryllium exposure that is 10 times more restrictive than the standard that has existed since 1949.
The agency had never wavered from its previous standard of 2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air - called a "permissible exposure level" - even though it admits that it doesn't know what level of exposure, if any, is safe.
Rick Jones, director of the agency's office of worker protection programs and hazards management, said the safety standard for beryllium dust published in yesterday's Federal Register is similar to how the government approaches radiation exposure in nuclear plants: Establish limits but recognize that beryllium affects everyone differently.
Exposure to beryllium and radiation are required to be kept as low as modern technology and common sense will allow, he said.
"What we've identified with beryllium is that it appears we are getting workers with ill health effects exposed at levels below the standard," Mr. Jones said. "For some folks, any exposure will cause health effects."
About 1,600 workers - mostly contractors hired by the government, as well as some federal employees - are at risk to beryllium exposure on a daily basis at energy department sites in Colorado, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Texas, the agency said.
In a six-part series in March and April, The Blade documented the hazards of beryllium and how the federal government and the beryllium industry risked the lives of thousands of workers by knowingly allowing them to be exposed to unsafe levels of beryllium dust.
Yesterday's announcement does not apply to nongovernment beryllium factories like Brush Wellman's plant near Elmore, where at least 65 current or former workers have contracted chronic beryllium disease, an often-fatal lung disease. Brush Wellman, which is headquarted in Cleveland, is the nation's leading producer of beryllium.
At least four local contractors have pulled their workers out of the Brush Wellman plant since the Blade series was published, citing fears of exposing their workers to beryllium dust.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration alerted workers in September that its 2-microgram standard, borrowed from the nuclear weapon industry, "now appears to be too high to prevent chronic beryllium disease." But, the agency has not changed the standard for workers at nongovernmental beryllium plants.
Energy Department Secretary Bill Richardson has made beryllium protection "his singular focus" in the 16 months since his appointment, largely because of safety fears made by workers and because of the amount of cleanup work scheduled to be done in coming years as decontamination efforts pick up at weapon facilities, according to Brooke Anderson, Department of Energy public affairs chief.
The process of adopting the rule began in 1997 and went smoother than many similar regulations after gaining a lot of momentum this year, she said.
"I think news media accounts have contributed," Ms. Anderson said.
Mr. Jones headed a team of department of energy and OSHA officials who drafted the rule, which he conceded is the first significant improvement in beryllium protection at weapon plants in half a century.
He said officials started the process of revisiting the standard and writing the new rule in early 1997 after going through peer-reviewed journals on the subject that had been published in the fall of 1996.
"In doing that, we identified that, yes, DOE appears to have a problem. We were getting chronic beryllium disease in our workforce," Mr. Jones said.
The agency established an "action level" of 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air to replace the 2-microgram exposure standard it has had since 1949.
OSHA has had the same standard since 1971.
The Department of Energy regulates weapon plants, while OSHA oversees Brush Wellman and other civilian facilities that produce beryllium.
Beryllium, an important metal used in nuclear weapons, can cause a deadly illness if its dust is inhaled.
Frank Kane, OSHA spokesman, stopped short of saying that his agency would follow the energy department's lead. But he said OSHA is in the process of revisiting its own standard and considering tighter controls.
He said the energy department's program "is a necessary first step from the deadly effects of beryllium, and we applaud the DOE."
Hugh Hanes, Brush Wellman spokesman, said he is aware that OSHA was involved in the rule-making process and that it is revisiting its own standard.
But he said it's too early to say whether OSHA will follow suit. Brush Wellman plans to participate in hearings sponsored by the agency, he said.
He said it has been Brush Wellman's goal to keep beryllium exposure as low as possible for years.
In addition to the 65 current or former employees at Brush's plant near Elmore that have been diagnosed as having chronic beryllium disease, the energy department said 146 other workers at weapon plants have been diagnosed as having the disease.
Those people are among an estimated 1,200 nationwide who have reportedly gotten the disease since the 1940s.
Sarah Ogdahl, Toledo area program director for Ohio Citizen Action, one of the state's largest environmental groups, said a double-standard will exist until OSHA requires the same protection at civilian plants that the Department of Energy will have at weapon facilities.
"Everyone should be under the same safety standard. It has been proven that the standard in effect at Brush Wellman and other facilities is not safe," she said.
Ms. Ogdahl said her group is calling upon OSHA to "pick up the pace" of its review.
"It's unfair there are certain groups of workers that are going to be protected more than others.''
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